Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Book Review: Ahead of the Curve by Philip Delves Broughton (2008).

A job interviewer asked Philip Delves Broughton what he thought about Harvard Business School ("HBS"). "I said what I usually said, which was that I felt I had learned a lot, even though the place was a little loopy." (p. 214.)

This revealing quote encapsulates the basic structure of Ahead of the Curve, Broughton's memoir of his two years as an MBA student at HBS, graduating in 2006.

"I Had Learned A Lot"

On the one hand, Broughton credits the experience with causing him to learn much about business. "I had learned the language of business, the modes of thinking." (p. 275.) Perhaps more than he bargained for, he also learned a lot about himself. However, in this regard, the book assumed a "navel gazing" cant that revealed more about Broughton than the school. For example, Broughton writes: "HBS challenged me in ways I never imagined it would. I never thought I would be pushed so aggressively against the window of my soul." (p. 276.) Coming from about a decade in journalism, Broughton never quite seems sold on making the career transition. Indeed, he "had achieved a status as the only person in [his] section without a job offer, in "[t]he final weeks of HBS." (pp. 252-53.) Broughton repeatedly revisits the work-life balance problem of many/most/all? in his new chosen field. In discussing this apparent dichotomy, he lets some judgmentalism seep into his analysis, which leaked into other parts of the book, as discussed below.

"The Place Was A Little Loopy"

On the other hand, the book critiques just about everyone around him. His fellow students bear the brunt of his censure, although he changed their names to protect their privacy. (p. 3.) He seems to look down on these "overachievers" in many respects, including how they entertain, motivate and conduct themselves. Professors don't quite receive the same punishing comments as Broughton's classmates, but he does excoriate a professor of entrepreneurship who couldn't show more disinterest in Broughton's business idea and embarrasses another one who presented an idea Broughton found "self-evident" and not "meaningful." (p. 249.) Guest speakers are often pilloried especially in what he perceives as hypocrisy in their work-life balances, including Meg Whitman (formerly of eBay), Jack Welch (formerly of GE) and Henry Paulson (formerly of Goldman Sachs and now Treasury Secretary). Regarding Paulson, Broughton writes: "It was disingenuous of Hank Paulson to say that it was up to individuals to make time in their life for their family, having been chief executive of a company, Goldman Sachs, that famously drives its employees to work endless hours." (p. 281.)

He concludes the book with suggestions about how to improve HBS, including "get[ting] rid of grades altogether", "commissioning cases and courses on the proper scope of business practice", and changing HBS's mission statement whereby business "relearns its limits" as opposed to "'educat[ing] leaders who made a difference in the world'" as if business "has a right to impose its will on the world." (pp. 277-83.)

While this sort of insider book has been done before in law and business schools, Broughton's new book ably adds to the discussion largely due to his expertise as a writer, preceding (and now following) his foray into HBS.

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